By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
HOOVER, Ala. — The 6-foot-6 quarterback walked up on stage in the print media room Thursday morning, leaned into the microphone and smiled as he introduced himself to the assembled crowd.
"Hello, I’m Ryan Mallett," he said.
The Johnny Cash-like greeting wasn’t necessary for Arkansas’ leader, who enters his junior season as one of the most recognizable stars of the Southeastern Conference. Even if it was the first time the man in the black pinstripe suit had met face-to-face with most of the media who have packed into the Wynfrey Hotel this week.
Mallett, the face of the 2010 Razorbacks, was one of three Arkansas players in attendance during the second day of SEC Media Days. There’s no doubt he garnered the most attention, whether it was answering questions about his arm strength, Heisman Trophy hopes, healing left foot or enviable position all alone on the cover of the Razorbacks’ 2010 football media guide.
It was notoriety Mallett and Arkansas planned for and expected. Even if, as defensive end Jake Bequette pointed out, Mallett might downplay it.
"He’ll tell you he hates that," Bequette said about the media guide. "But he’s loving every second of it. He deserves it. He’s the star."
The three-hour smorgasbord of interviews was just another notch in an offseason loaded with publicity, beginning with Mallett’s decision to return to school after setting or tying 16 school passing records as a sophomore.
Mallett has seemingly been everywhere since, from interviews on ESPN, a photo spread to show off Arkansas’ new Nike uniforms, and the cover of preseason magazines. Then the latest — Arkansas’ media guide cover — was unveiled.
It is the first time a player has been featured alone on the media guide since 1976. The media guide had a shot of Steve Little, but did not include the former Razorback great’s name.
So why the cover? Petrino explained with humor.
"The number one thing I wanted to make sure we did with the cover was not have me on it," Petrino said. "Ryan is much better looking. It’s a great picture of him. He’s certainly a guy we feel like has an opportunity to lead our football team. That was the decision."
Mallett said it won’t be a regrettable one.
"He knows that all this is not going to get to me because I’m here to play football and go to school," Mallett said. "Going into the season, I feel like he has the confidence in me that I’m going to take care of my business and I’m going to lead the team like I’m supposed to."
Mallett was named the coaches’ All-SEC first-team quarterback on Tuesday and should earn the media’s vote today. He has been named to the watch lists for the Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards, both of which honor the nation’s top quarterback. He’s a Heisman Trophy hopeful, too.
How well-known is he? While Mallett was waiting for an interview room Thursday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive walked over, introduced himself and spoke to the quarterback for several minutes.
Tight end D.J. Williams, who was one of two players on the 2009 media guide cover, said none of the Razorbacks are bothered by the notoriety their record-setting quarterback has received.
"A lot of people would say you could be worried about one player taking away all the attention from everybody else," Williams said. "But if you just sit back and look at it, ESPN, College Gameday, CBS, they’re talking about Arkansas.
"If Mallett is the Hog they’re talking about, he’s representing us as a whole. So he’s done a great job giving us that attention."
There’s no doubt Mallett’s left foot has been the source of much discussion this summer. In fact, Williams described it as the "most famous foot in the country right now" because of the interest it has garnered since Arkansas announced he had a broken bone last winter.
Mallett made it immediately clear Thursday he is "right on schedule" with his rehabilitation from two offseason procedures to repair his broken foot. Petrino said he should be "100 percent" by the time preseason practice starts.
Mallett arrived at SEC Media Days without the protective boot he has worn for much of the offseason. He hasn’t been able to participate in running drills, but has made up for the missed time with work in the pool. In fact, Mallett joked that he’s ready for the next Olympics.
Excuse him if the answer sounded rehearsed. He has had to talk about his foot all summer long.
"It’s been crazy," Mallett said. "It’s the only question I get. Not how are you doing? How is your foot? I’m doing fine. My foot is good too."
He survived one more round of foot questions on the SEC’s enormous preseason stage Thursday morning. He admittedly enjoyed it, too, confident that topic will finally be put to rest when he steps on the practice field Aug. 5.
As for the attention? That won’t go away anytime soon, although Mallett is fine with it.
"As a quarterback, you can’t be shy," Mallett said. "You can’t be just looking down. You have to be the guy that’s going to step up and say ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to do things.’"